Home Read Classic Album Review: Lou Reed | The Raven

Classic Album Review: Lou Reed | The Raven

The VU vet's Poe tribute is a real horrorshow — but not always in a good way.

This came out in 2003 – or at least that’s when I got it. Here’s what I said about it back then (with some minor editing):


Every year, on the anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s death, an unidentified mourner visits his Baltimore grave in the dead of night, toasts him with cognac, leaves the bottle and three roses behind, and then silently slips away into the darkness.

I have no reason to suspect that Lou Reed is the man behind these annual nocturnal appearances. Then again, if Lou were to own up to it, I wouldn’t be surprised either. After all, he and Poe are nothing short of kindred spirits — popular artists who share a dangerous fascination with the drugs, decadence, degradation and desperation that lurk beneath the seamy underbelly of America. Lou may have preferred amphetamines to absinthe, but his Rock and Roll Heart has always beat to the same rhythm as Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart. And I doubt both men wrote pieces titled The Bells by coincidence. More likely it was a case of Lou tipping his hat to the master.

With his 20th solo studio album The Raven, the former Velvet Underground leader honours Poe once again. Only this time, I’m not so sure old Edgar would be quite as flattered. On the surface, The Raven sounds like it would be thoroughly cool: Lou and his band, joined by guest stars from David Bowie and Ornette Coleman to Willem Dafoe and Steve Buscemi, celebrate Poe with a slate of songs and spoken-word cuts. But when you actually dive into the album — which comes as a 21-track single CD or a 36-cut double-disc set — you begin to see that, as in a Poe story, things are far more sinister than they appear.

The most obvious problem is also the most egregious: Lou has rewritten Poe’s words. (Either that or he’s privy to some drastically different manuscripts than the rest of us.) And I don’t mean he’s changed a few words to make them scan better as lyrics. That you could forgive. But making Dafoe dramatically recite a radically reworked version of the ominous title poem — which now includes the word “dickless” — well, that’s tougher to swallow. Yes, I understand Lou is paying homage to Poe by reimagining him, channeling his vision through the lenses of contemporary society and Reed’s own artistic sensibilities. But you have to wonder how Lou would react if somebody took the same liberties with Take A Walk On The Wild Side or Sweet Jane. I bet he would call them an arrogant and disrespectful cretin for screwing with another artist’s creations. And he’d be right.

Even assuming you just skip over the hubristic spoken-word bits, The Raven is still kind of disappointing. There are only a few standout tracks, and usually they’re the more esoteric ones. The mournful Call On Me, the haunting Guardian Angel, the sombre revamp of his Transformer classic Perfect Day and the minimalist piano ballad Vanishing Act reflect the dread and despair at the heart of Poe’s work. The gospel-soul of I Wanna Know (The Pit And The Pendulum), featuring the Blind Boys Of Alabama, and the gritty jazz-funk of Guilty, guest-starring free-jazz sax legend Coleman, don’t really really tell us much about Poe, but they’re a couple of the best songs Lou has written lately. But with the notable exception of the wah-wah-laden fury of Blind Rage, most of the harder-rocking fare — like the chugging Edgar Allen Poe (“Not exactly the boy next door”), the plodding Hop Frog (sung by Bowie) and the funereally metallic instrumental A Thousand Departed Friends — come off as half-baked or superfluous. And the less said about Broadway Song — which has Buscemi hamming it up as a lounge singer — the better.

Hey, I know Lou’s heart was in the right place, more or less. And it’s not like The Raven is as annoying as Metal Machine Music or that 18-minute song about a possum on his last album. Still, he might want to put off that visit to the cemetery — Edgar is liable to try to reach right out of the ground and throttle him.